Wednesday, 20 May 2009

Darwinius: the MISSING LINK!!!(?)

The big story breaking today is a newly discovered fossil, Darwinius masillae (they had to really, given that it is Darwin year), that headlines have proclaimed the ‘missing link’ in evolution that scientists have been searching for.

Darwinius, or 'Ida' as she has affectionately been named by researchers, is a 47 million year old fossil of a creature resembling a lemur. Beautifully preserved, it is possible to make out detail as far as the outline of its fur and even the contents of its last meal, digesting in its stomach! The full details are published in the open access journal PLoS ONE (and a round of applause all round to the researchers for making such an important paper freely available).

The researchers are confident this is a major discovery in evolution research, but there is much debate as to how important it is, and how right it is to publicise this on the back of hyped ‘missing link’ headlines. Nevertheless, it may well provide key insights into a previously blank part of the tree of life and, as Sir David Attenborough excitedly says (with BBC documentary coming soon):

“To anybody who's interested in evolution, and the ultimate demonstration of the truth of evolution – the fact of evolution – this is a key discovery.”

"It is really delightful and exciting and appropriate that 150 years after Darwin first tentatively put forward the proposition that human beings were part of the rest of animal life, that here at last we have the link which connects us directly ... Darwin would have been thrilled."

Image: Darwinius masillae © 2009 Franzen et al

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